Straight Shooter

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Though old buildings were a favorite, Adams also took shots of New York City's skyline. These photos are in the niche at the back of the CVA gallery. Particularly striking is "The RCA Building From the Roof of the Museum of Modern Art." This 1942 work shows the office building looming in the mist, towering over a jumble of old buildings in the foreground.

As viewers make their way through Building Form, they will be struck by the wide variety of approaches that Adams has taken over the years, from all-encompassing panoramas to tight details. Many of his pictorial devices were so widely copied, and his influence so great, that single images led to thousands of imitations. Take a look at "Door, Old Church, Chinese Camp, California." Taken in 1957, it's a closeup of a portion of a weathered portal complete with antique knob and key hole. This is the kind of image we've all seen a thousand times before by other, less-inspired photographers. Also influential in the same way is an untitled piece from 1932 in which Adams takes a detail shot of several rows of fish-scale shingles on a old building.

The amount of material in Building Form is daunting, and it may lead to visual exhaustion for many viewers. Be sure to catch your second wind for the last part of the show, however. Here, in the north gallery, Perisho has installed several groups of photos that feature Adams's work from New Mexico. Some of these are his most impressive accomplishments.

From these spectacular photos, it's easy to see that Adams's mature style developed early on. Two standard features of his later work -- the dramatic play of lights and darks and theatrical composition -- can already be seen in "Saint Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico." This photo was taken in 1929, one year before he devoted himself to photography full-time.

Interestingly, Adams's approach to buildings, in which the sculptural character of the structure is recorded, had an impact on architectural photography as a separate field. Today, all documentary photos of buildings owe him a debt.

The impressive Building Form gives Denver viewers a rare opportunity to see a large body of work by a major historical photographer. And perhaps since so many of the photos are uncharacteristic, it will silence those who see Adams as a photographic Johnny One-Note. Instead, the show reveals that at one time or another, Adams has played every instrument in the orchestra.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia